New David Bowie album unexpected, engaging and urgent
The Next Day
A master of timing, David Bowie has always known precisely when to kill off one of his artistic selves, so it seems reasonable to believe he might also be able to engineer a resurrection. True enough, no one would have wanted for such a revered star - for anyone - the circumstances of his nine-year withdrawal from public life (hit in the eye by a lollipop at a gig in Norway in 2004; hospitalised with a heart attack in Germany a few days later). Without that long absence, however, we would almost certainly not be paying quite the same attention to this, Bowie's vibrant new album.
Nor, in this instance, is "resurrection" a complete overstatement. To judge by the mood of Bring Me The Disco King, the regal and jazzy piano ballad that closed his last album (2003's Reality), the last person who expected there to be another David Bowie album was David Bowie. That song, written years before but never successfully recorded until then, was an eight-minute ballad, filled with wittily self-referential lyrics (it spoke of him "killing time in the '70s…" - by far his most productive decade) that occasionally verged on the morbid. "Soon there'll be nothing left of me," Bowie sang, "Nothing left to release…"
If it was intended to sound grave in 2003, the intervening years have made the song seem more like an unbelievably suspenseful end of season cliffhanger. Bowie's stunning return, the stately single Where Are We Now?, released on January 8 (his 66th birthday), seemed designed to perpetuate that sedate mood. Accompanied by a strange video in which the singer barely moved, the single found Bowie in an unfamiliarly nostalgic mode, remembering 1970s Berlin - where he and Iggy Pop stayed for several months, detoxing from drug addictions and making some of the best music of their careers. Might, one wondered, the coming album also comprise a meditative wander around some old haunts, some retired personae?
There are present here, true enough, ghosts of Bowie's past. The record is played by his early 2000s live band, notably New Yorker Earl Slick, who was also a fixture on lead guitar in the mid-1970s. The album finds Tony Visconti, the man who produced Heroes and other important 1970s Bowie work, again at the controls. At the close of You Feel So Lonely You Want To Die, Sterling Campbell taps out the instantly recognisable drum pattern that opened Bowie's apocalyptic 1972 song Five Years. The album cover, meanwhile, presents a conceptually censored version of the iconic sleeve of his Berlin-era Heroes album. It's familiar, but jarringly different - and that feeling stays with you throughout the album.
The Next Day is all about engagement with the world: its keynotes are urgency, anger, even shock. Rather than relaxing into nostalgia, we begin at speed, with Bowie a hunted man: the opening track The Next Day is a thrilling Dylanesque profusion of words over a Rolling Stonesy riff. It's an account of a baying mob, who "can't get enough of that Doomsday song" and that just won't quit until they have, in one way or another, consumed the person that wrote it. The song achieves a spectacular mounting tension as the speaker is forced to live outside society: "Here I am/Not quite dying/Body left to rot in a hollow tree…"
The second single, The Stars Are Out Tonight, a distant cousin of China Girl (a Pop/Bowie composition of 1977), ratchets up the tension once more as Bowie inverts the cat-and-mouse game of celebrity culture and envisages a world where it is the celebrities who do the stalking, and won't leave the private individual alone. In the video, as if the concept seemed a little too vague, Bowie plays a suburban househusband whose life is intruded upon by a vision of one of his earlier incarnations - specifically, the emaciated redhead on the cover of his album Low.
Where Are We Now brings a similar calm upon the album that Berlin did to Bowie's 1970s career. A place where he was barely known as a musician or celebrity, where Bowie could hide in plain sight. "You never knew I could do that," he croons. As the song gently develops, he lines up an image as defiant and as hopeful as the two lovers he placed by the Berlin wall in Heroes, in 1977. "As long as there's me," he says with great finality, "As long as there's you…" In that case, he's saying, all is right with the world. It's incredibly moving.
Not all of the spirits conjured from the past are as benign as they are on Where Are We Now, however. Valentine's Day is on the surface an extremely tidy glitter rock song in the vein of Bowie's 1971 song Life On Mars, or Five Years. But much as those songs beguiled with innocent melody only to deliver troubling visions of the modern world, here Bowie offers us Valentine.
The guitar is crunchily glam. The backing vocals are placid "ooooh"s and "aaaah"s. Valentine, however, is planning a high school shooting. "Valentine told me who's to go," Bowie tells us." The teachers and the football stars…" As the song develops, Bowie pulls back to imagine Valentine as a nascent Hitler, the little man turned dictator: "It's in his scrawny hand/It's in his icy heart" The subsequent If You Can See Me ("Then I can see you…") sounds nothing like it, being a piece of hectic avant-rock, but it seems to chart Valentine's irresistible rise to an omniscient Big Brother figure.
Bowie has a few of those in his past, too. Love Is Lost is a modern rock song, with guitars slashing and synthesiser gently pulsing, but its grim litany of dehumanising questions ("Tell them your secrets/What have you done?") it hearkens back to the generally horrific scenarios painted by Bowie's most dystopian album, Diamond Dogs, written under his dominant influences of 1973: Philadelphia soul and George Orwell's future state novel 1984.
Subjugating forces threaten to dominate The Next Day. They can be political, as in the horrifying How Does The Grass Grow? (Answer: "Blood blood blood"). Or they can be local, like the chauvinist speaker of Boss Of Me, which seems to reference a spiritual 1980s, where the cultural power rests with Billy Joel and the first Mick Jagger solo album.
In such a place, you're going to need someone on your side. Happily, Bowie knows them, and towards the album's close, he calls on them. Rather than delving into his own past, on (You Will) Set The World On Fire he travels to Greenwich Village in 1961 or so to visit characters from the US folk music revival. It's a strange song, a heavy, Kinks-like riff illuminating a scene of Atomic paranoia, where (folk guitarist Dave) "Van Ronk says to Bobby" (Dylan) that an emerging female talent is "the next real thing". It could be Joan Baez that's being discussed here - but since she's apparently "screaming like a banshee" it feels more like a metaphor, or an anticipatory review of Yoko Ono.
Darkness descends again on You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. A gently swelling arrangement, it's a piece of well-judged, tastefully-constructed rock that focuses on a cursed individual with an unspeakable secret, who has betrayed the people. He "stole their trust, their moon, their sun" and must suffer an Audenesque penalty, "the assassin's needle/On a crowded train". Bowie isn't finished, either: "I can see you as a corpse/Hanging from a beam…" "Death alone shall love you…" It seems likely Bowie has a political dictator in mind. Or possibly it's more personal than that: an ex-lover, or even, given the title's reference to Yer Blues from the Beatles' White Album, to Mark David Chapman, the murderer of Bowie's friend, John Lennon. Heat, which closes the album, channels Scott Walker and sounds like nothing less than an avant-garde rewriting of Louis Armstrong's Wonderful World.
Of course, the world as Bowie describes it here is anything but wonderful. But The Next Day is an album that returns Bowie to that world and intelligently addresses his status as a participant in it. At the album's close, the oppressive forces are still out there, but Bowie's unique way of dealing with them is proved to be in supremely rude health for whatever happens next. The Next Day, in fact, is the first day of the rest of his life.
John Robinson is the associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.
Updated: March 16, 2013 04:00 AM